Preambles occasionally take up over half the entire length of a will, as in this example:
Using preambles for religious history is problematic. Preambles have in the past been studied as indicatiors of religious belief, but now one historian has gone so far as to say that
Far from revealing the religious beliefs of the average testator, wills and their preambles hide them from the historians' gaze.
R O'Day, The debate on the English Reformation (London, 1986), quoted in When Death Do Us Part, p158.
There is a question as to how much value the wording has as evidence. It is important to bear in mind the wider local situation and the mechanics of will-making - just how many people were there to choose from in your community to draft a will for you? Wills were often written by members of the clergy or by a small number of amateur scribes. Books of legal formulae were in circulation and the wording could be copied directly from them.
This is a summary of the latest thinking on the subject of preambles by Margaret Spufford from the new collection of essays on probate, When Death Do Us Part (See bibliography for publication details):
While standard formulations can indeed be found and associated with particular scribes, there was a sufficient range of choice of scribes for a testator to choose a man with at least the same general beliefs as himself, while when an individual held particularly forceful religious opinions these came through in the terminology employed in the will.
However, if the will is in the testator's own hand, perhaps a little more weight can be given to the contents of their preamble. This is the opening to the will of Richard Bowman, written by himself:
Will of Richard Bowman (ref: P2/B/1599)
Click here for the catalogue entry for this will
Click for a transcript of this will
There are other wills in the collection that throw light on this vexed subject. We have come across several examples of wills that have been jotted down in the presence of the testator and then written up afterwards and the difference is quite startling.
This is the will of William Belch. Or is it? There is a different version, actually signed by the testator, in which there is no mention of God at all! It is certainly an area where more research might bring a clearer understanding.
Will of William Belch (ref: P5/1635/13)